Wednesday, May 22, 2013


So I'm at the place where I do physical rehab in this working class town. Most of the patients are immigrants or first generation, in unions or cops or firemen, some young most older, different languages and accents, and all that. One of the therapists named Muhammad asks me if I saw THE GREAT GATSBY and then wants to know what I thought about it, which leads a couple of ladies, one young one old to start talking about how much they love that book and others second that.

I'm thinking, how cool. THE GREAT GATSBY is one of several novels I've read many times over the years since first encountering them when I was young (others include Joyce's PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, Rilke's THE NOTEBOOKS OF MALTA LAURIDS BRIGGS Kerouac's ONE THE ROAD and DESOLATION ANGELS, William Saroyan's TRACY'S TIGER etc.). But back then, when I was a young writer critics and writers still argued over whether Fitzgerald or Hemingway was the better writer, with most coming down in favor of Hemingway.

I hate judging things by their popularity or success, at least in terms of artistic value, but the world seems to love it, or at least the critics and pundits. The history in brief was Fitzgerald's first novel, THIS SIDE OF PARADISE defined The Jazz Age of the 1920s just as it began. He was heralded as the voice of his generation, the one that Gertrude Stein named in a comment to Hemingway The Lost Generation. But only a few years after Fitzgerald became the king of young novelists, in the USA at least, Hemingway published THE SUN ALSO RISES and was hailed as THE modern writer, not just popular but revolutionizing the way prose was used.

It was like if Dylan had appeared on the scene with his early great albums only a couple of years after Elvis. Though that's a far less than perfect analogy (it's late). The idea is that from the moment Hemingway passed Fitzgerald it became a horse race in the eyes of many critics, and Hemingway was winning. Where the prose style of THE FAR SIDE OF PARADISE could have come from earlier years or even decades, the same could not be said for THE SUN ALSO RISES. Young people identified so strongly with Hemingway's prose, especially the dialogue, that they adopted it the way when I was in 8th grade the day after BLACKBOARD JUNGLE came out most of us boys were calling men daddy-o.

THE GREAT GATSBY was Fitzgerald's reaction to THE SUN ALSO RISES. It was faster and more modern in story and style, while still retaining some of the elegance and insight that partly made F. Scott's reputation, along with the subject matter that had too: The Roaring Twenties. But it wasn't as popular with readers or critics as THIS SIDE OF PARADISE or THE SUN ALSO RISES. And the 1930s changed everything anyway. Hemingway's clipped tough guy straight talk with no frills suited the decade of The Great Depression much better than Fitzgerald's more romantic sensibility. He kept writing about what he knew, and some of it was great, but the world wasn't in the mood.

By the time of Fitzgerald's death in his early forties in 1940, when it was only academics and writers themselves who were still debating which author was better, the world had already made up its mind. When Fitzgerald died I think THE GREAT GATSBY was out of print, and if not long forgotten certainly not selling. Meanwhile Hemingway and his influence were still peaking. A lot of pulp fiction, especially the tough guy detective prose showed Hemingway's influence. Known as the stylist who left things out, the whole mid century sensibility seemed to mirror Hemingway's code, tight lipped, macho, all about honor and grace under fire (though he was not as good at doing it as he was at writing about it), and taking your drinks straight and fighting bulls in Spain and shooting tigers in Africa.

Movies made from Hemingway's books were successful, like FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS with Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman (as a Spanish girl!) or later THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA (with aging Spencer Tracy as a Cuban!). By the 1960s when I was learning about this old debate, Hemingway had written his memoir THE MOVEABLE FEAST in which he dissed a lot of his "friends"—especially those who had influenced him or helped him in any way (poor Sherwood Anderson and Ford Madox Ford). But he especially dissed Fitzgerald by claiming F. Scott called him to come to his hotel room and take a look at his member because he feared it wasn't big enough! And people bought it.

Being Irish-American Catholic and all that, I defended Fitzgerald, and also because I loved his prose. I dug Hemingway's too in some cases, mostly his first collection of stories IN OUR TIME and I appreciated the discipline that had created his style (still influential, I remember asking David Mamet at a party after seeing one of his early plays why he didn't use any contractions—like Hemingway—so that people talked like this in both their works: "I did not see him when he could not show up" etc. which pissed Mamet off so he sulked away after saying "It's POETRY!" etc.).

But then a funny thing happened. It was the 1960s and macho jive fell out of favor. Hemingway shot himself and pretty soon the battle of the dead authors, the greats of 20th century American lit. heated up again and THE GREAT GATSBY started selling again and nowadays sells more than it ever did in Fitzgerald's time and two movies have been made based on it (the Redford one in the '70s, or was it '80s, and the latest) and despite their failed attempt to capture what makes the book so great, as well as the Gatsby character, people still read the book, and not just students, and a lot of them dig it.

So who's d*ck is bigger now Hem?


-K- said...

I wonder if they'll ever come a day when I re-read either one of them.

The closest I might come would be picking up the short stories of Fitzgerald again. I recall really liking them but I remember nothing whatsoever about any of them.

AlamedaTom said...

"But then a funny thing happened. It was the 1960s and macho jive fell out of favor..."

Redford version in the seventies equates with the wild popularity of "Upstairs Downstairs" and DiCaprio version equates with the even wilder popularity of "Downton Abbey."

Just sayin'

~ Willy

Shem The Penman said...

Or, to re-phrase it in Daily Show terms, which one is a bigger dick?